Will Gray

Gray Matter: Is F1 missing out on top talent?

F1 came under fire from Mark Webber this week for filling its grids with pay drivers instead of taking on top talent – but is this really the case and if so what can the sport do about it?

This year’s grid contains five rookies, and all but one made it onto the grid thanks to financial backing.

Esteban Gutierrez joined Sauber thanks to funding from multiple Mexican backers; Giedo van der Garde took fashion brand McGregor’s millions to Caterham; Max Chilton was helped into F1 by his father Grahame’s company AON Consulting; and Valtteri Bottas brings money to Williams from trade conglomerate Wirhuri, whose boss Antti Aarnio-Wihuri has admitted he used “a personal acquaintance” with Frank Williams and “substantial sums but not tens of millions” to get the drive.

In fact, Ferrari protégé Jules Bianchi, who drives for Marussia, is the only rookie not to bring a major sponsor to his team – but his race seat will no doubt have oiled the wheels to the 2014 Ferrari engine deal the team recently secured.

Motor racing, however, is an expensive sport and some of the very best have had to pay their way to get to the top.

Even Webber admits he also had to buy a seat at Minardi – but he suggests that the difference is in those days the drivers around him, even if they had bought their seats, had more experience and more success in the lower formulae than newcomers do now.

"When I was on the grid at the back with Minardi...all those guys had been on podiums," said Webber. "The grid was just packed full of guys who had won in F3000, won a lot of impressive races.”

The concern is that not only does money buy drivers a way into F1, it also enables them to stay there – and if that is the case it means that the quality of drivers in F1 is getting worse and worse.

“There are a lot of talented guys out there (now) but a lot are slipping through the net and that's a sad state,” added Webber.

So does he have a point?

Back in Webber’s day, the F1 rookies alongside him were Sauber’s Felipe Massa, who had two junior titles and one year as a Ferrari test driver, and Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, who had finished 1-2 as team-mates in British F3, with Sato winning 16 times, and both had one year of testing in F1 machinery. Webber himself had multiple wins in F3000, not to mention his experience racing at Le Mans.

But to be fair, this year’s rookies are not that bad either.

Gutierrez and Bottas both won GP3 titles, Van der Garde won the FR3.5 title and Bianchi won the F3 Euroseries and has taken 17 race wins and 40 podiums during his major junior career. Only Chilton, who raced two years in British F3 and two in GP2, has limited success and no titles.

All have also sampled F1 machinery with Gutierrez, van der Garde and Bianchi all on four seasons and Chilton and Bottas on two – although the F1 testing role is a very different thing these days, with more days in the simulator than on a real track.

And as for the pay drivers who have hung around, Pastor Maldonado, who brings Williams a rumoured £45m of Venezuelan government backing, won them a race while Sergio Perez, backed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, is now making his mark at McLaren.

In fact, given that the GP2 championship is the acknowledged F1 feeder series, the amount of top-level graduates is actually quite impressive.

In 2009, Nico Hulkenberg was champion, Vitaly Petrov second, Lucas di Grassi third and Romain Grosjean fourth. All have since graduated to F1 – although tellingly two are already no longer there.

The 2010 season was similarly successful, with champion Maldonado, runner-up Perez and third-placed Bianchi also all now in F1 – even if the latter did take a little more time to get there.

In 2011, Grosjean won the title, Luca Filippi was second and Jules Bianchi third, but it was fourth-placed Charles Pic who made it into F1 first, the following year, thanks to family financing.

Likewise, in 2012, champion Davide Valsecchi and runner-up Luiz Razia both failed to find a place in F1 – in fact Razia had a seat with Marussia but was dropped before the start of the season when his sponsor money failed to materialise. But third-placed Gutierrez, fourth-placed Chilton and sixth-placed van der Garde all stepped up.

F1 has always seen money help get drivers into teams, but there has usually been space for the top talent to make it in too. In recent seasons, it seems, demonstrably more successful drivers have started to be beaten to F1 by better-financed ones.

And that could become a major concern.

There are not many teams on the grid, and the ones towards the back are struggling. Marussia admitted the global downturn has made it harder for smaller teams and this year they had to drop experienced star Timo Glock for a pay driver. Former race winners Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen have both experienced the same situation at Caterham.

Even McLaren were surely influenced by the budget/talent balance to take Perez rather than Hulkenberg, who many believe is more talented, leaving the German to potentially drop off the grid next year when Sauber’s new Russian backers will place Sergey Sirotkin into his seat.

So Webber is right – F1 is at risk of talent slip and unless it can get its finances in order, it seems that could become increasingly the case.